Cancun & Riviera Maya
Along the main highway from Cancún to Merida lies the most famous and best restored of Maya sites: Chichén Itzá.
Into the Maya Civilization
Along the main highway from Cancún to Merida lies the most famous and best restored of Maya sites: Chichén Itzá. The city was established around 300 AD, and flourished between 800 and 925 AD. Excavated evidence points towards a history of human sacrifice, as well as ball games and glorified military activity.
The best time to visit is at sunrise, before the big tour buses arrive at 10.30am. Spend at least three hours in the archeological zone, hitting the iconic buildings of Itzá-era Chichén Nuevo (New Chichén) on the north, as well as the less-touristy Chichén Viejo (old) to the south.
- The nine-terraced El Castillo is the main site, also called the Pyramid of Kukulcan. This square building sits upon a great grassy plaza, with monumental stairways ascending each face. The building is actually the stony incarnation of the Maya calendar with its 365 steps for each day of the year and illusionary phenomena during the spring and autumn equinoxes (ask your guide to explain!) If you’re there at night, see the sound-and-light show re-creating the joining of the stair serpents’ heads to their tails, which in reality only happens twice a year.
- “Toltec” Plaza: A plaza forming Chichén Nuevo’s nucleus, connecting to the Cenote Sagrado (sacred cenote). It is surrounded by the Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors), Grupo de las Mil Columnas (Group of the Thousand Columns), the Mercado (market), and Plataforma de Venus. At the Plataforma de Aguilas y Jaguares (Platform of Eagles and Jaguars), they say human sacrifices were carried out.
- Gran Juego de Pelota: Chichén Itzá’s ball-court, the largest known in existence!
- Templo de los Jaguares: Temple of the Jaguars with carvings of the Maya creation myth.
- Cenote Sagrado: An almost perfectly round hole in limestone bedrock; a natural well that gave Chichén Itzá its name – “at the edge of Itzá’s well”. It was regarded as a portal to the underworld, into which the Maya threw in offerings.
- Chichén Viejo:
- El Osario: A pyramid connected to El Castillo’s southern side. “The Ossuary” in English, it’s also called the High Priest’s Grave. Tombs were discovered inside, dropping down through five crypts. The sixth chamber opening onto an underground cavern was the high priest’s burial.
- El Caracol: Named for its snail-like shape, this observatory is a circular, domed tower on two platforms. The slits on its ceiling aligns with astronomical points, and a spiral staircase leads to the upper level.
- Las Monjas: This nunnery houses an annexe whose mesmerizing facade is made up of heads that combine to make a giant face, whose mouth forms a door.
Grutas de Balankanche:
- Damp caverns where you can cool down. The underground path leads to an altar to Chac, the rain god. Stalagmite and stalactite formations resemble the Maya tree of life.
- A well-kept cenote with great facilities for camping, eating, and freshening up. You can rent life jackets and snorkeling gear here, or take a bike tour to another cenote close by.
Chichen Itza 97751, Mexico; Opening hours 8AM–4:30PM